Over the past couple decades, a gradual smear campaign has developed regarding one of the oldest and most generous friends and benefactors to the human race. I am positively staggered. I grew up crouching under a flimsy grade school desk for nuclear attack drills, sirens barking off the wall like dogs of war, so I frankly in my lifetime expect the worst.
But I was not prepared to live to see the demon propaganda turned against … wait for it … corn? I don’t recall which came first, the flap over corn-based sweetener or the insinuation that somehow more energy was expended growing corn than could be available from any ethanol produced. The last is false, according to my scientist friend from Oak Ridge National Labs.
The matter of high-fructose sweeteners (from any source) is easily managed. In this country we get to vote with our food dollars. Don’t like high fructose products? Don’t buy them. If it costs you more, then you’ll have to do your own math. Corn farmers, and corn itself, must be held harmless. This one lies entirely at the processors’ door.
The truth is that corn is so deeply vital to the society of the Americas, the long view might say the story of America is in many ways the story of corn.
Corn is a zea, a spiky grass native to Central America. With the intervention of human breeders, corn became the caloric foundation of great empires and thriving city-states from the Aztecs in Mexico to the Mississippi Valley mound cultures, which stretched through the southeastern U.S. and even north into present-day Canada. Large-scale corn production created one of the first truly new things under the sun—a surplus. Surplus gave rise to trade. Sound familiar?
Corn production is a huge economic driver in the U.S. agricultural, trade and energy economy. For more than a quarter century, only agricultural exports—enormously in corn—allowed the U.S. to post a trade surplus and to promote globalization. Corn is a foundation of the Pan-American diet in breads, cereals and sweeteners and in production of beef, pork and poultry. In truth, corn-fed animal protein consumption is coming to virtually equate with upper mobility in rising Asia and around the world.
And for very good reason. Nothin’ tastes better than corn. Are there picky eaters with souls so dead, they never to themselves have said, “Sweet corn? Pass me the butter!” Corn is the only major grain that in season in some varieties (like legumes, peas and beans) is also a glorious vegetable, and it is even eaten entire as baby corn. Corn is the only vegetable on which human beings are known to actually binge. The great native cuisines of the U.S. and the Americas feature corn in all its delicious virtues, from cornmeal fritters and crusted fried fish through grits and corn bread and cornmeal pancakes, chowders, corn casseroles, tortillas, tamales, enchiladas, Fritos, Cheetos and Doritos, corn dogs, popcorn, corn nuts and crackerjack.
And of course there is the matter of the excellence of corn-finished beef—and pork and fowl. Argue all you like, there is no finer eating, most omnivores agree. Beyond kitchen, of course, has always been corn for the still. My people came through the Cumberland Gap in the deep long ago. Corn was their staple grain, and when the great disaster of the chestnut blight overtook the Eastern U.S., corn replaced the huge loss in the early 20th century of chestnut mast, a major food source for wildlife, humans and hogs. When Appalachian farmers couldn’t get a price for the corn that they raised, they made whiskey, the way their dads knew how from back in the old country—a better value and so much easier than a load of near-worthless corn to carry down out of the hills.
Today distillers use corn for ethanol to replace toxic MTBEs* in the battle against smog. Ethanol—whether made from corn today or kelp tomorrow—is key to breaking our devil’s deal with foreign oil. Every gallon of fuel we can grow at home is a barrel that doesn’t get bought by volunteer blood from Phoenix or Detroit or Little Rock. And unlike fossil fuel, the growing corn absorbs the carbon dioxide ethanol leaves behind.
A big part of the magic of corn, of course, corn shares with apples—the sugar. Michael Pollan is one of the best writers today on culture and agriculture. His early book, “The Botany of Desire,” explored relationships between humans and domesticated plants—apple, tulip, marijuana and potato. “He ... links four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control—with the plants that satisfy them.” (www.michaelpollan.com) Pollan could as easily have used corn as apple, and the story would be equally compelling.
Corn satisfies three of Pollan’s four fundamental human desires, and if you credit my culinary arguments, you might agree corn even satisfies the need for beauty, to our sense of taste. Or if you find beauty mostly in the visual sense, you could just look at the particular green that is new corn. It almost seems to produce its own light, as anyone who has ever looked closely can tell you. And it’s spring—soon you can see for yourself.
Corn is sweet. Enough said. Corn produces a ready intoxicant, applying well-understood technology, which not incidentally applies also to the making of fuel. Corn is, and has been, and will foreseeably continue to be a high stakes venue for economic, political and environmental control. The sugar that moms worry about in their kids’ popsicles is the chemical treasure that makes corn so very valuable. The futures traders figured it out, that calories are fuel, where corn is concerned. A century-old adjustment in corn price has finally been made. God willing I’ll never again see $2 corn, in actual dollars not adjusted for inflation, in 1998 the same as it was in 1918.
There is no such thing as a best grain. Nature, even in the hands of human breeders, doesn’t operate that way. In the matter of growing anything, context is always everything. For example, growing corn can use a lot of water. So does rice. Both are shallow-rooted grasses. Go figure. The domestication of corn has been a raging success for the human race, and the anti-corn message is a flea on the pelt of a buffalo.
When Europeans began arriving by the boatload in the late 15th century, corn had been worshiped as a god in our hemisphere for many, many years. The actual worship of an individual grain is rare—there is an African rice god Bulul and a rice kami in Japan—but gods and goddesses of overarching fertility, planting and harvest are much more common. Corn, though, was an actual god to the Aztecs and Mississippi culture, and Zuni sacred artists still make fetishes to the maiden corn.
Europeans after Columbus famously hunted for cities of gold, which proved in time to be only dreams. Ironically, corn, the real gold of the Americas, was in the fields and garden patches growing everywhere.
* Methyl tertiary butyl ether (toxics.usgs.gov/definitions/mtbe_def.html)
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